Thursday, May 28, 2015

Storm in our teacup

It's 10 days since I had the honour of becoming the mayor of this very special town.  When I was questioned by the local pressmen after my election, I was rash enough to say that my aim for my mayoral term  is to try to break down barriers within the town between the racing and the non-racing communities.  We have our version of a 'town and gown' divide here, and it would be to everyone's advantage if such a divide could be reduced.  As I (possibly naively) put it, everyone who loves Newmarket is (or should be) on the same side, and it is important that we do not forget that.

Anyway, nine days into my mayorship we had an article in the Newmarket Weekly News yesterday telling us that the racecourse had decided to close the public footpath along the top of the Devil's Dyke on Friday evenings when there is a post-racing concert on the July Course, thus ensuring that the option for townspeople of getting a free seat at the concert is closed off.  Racecourses (even not-for-profit ones) are big business nowadays, and my natural inclination is to be sceptical about the motives of big business.  Anyway, I read this and sighed, reflecting that this would surely do more to cause ill-feeling than to bring benefits to anyone, the racecourse included.  If there is such thing as a racing certainty, it was that this would be a hugely unpopular move and would stir up a local hornet's nest.

This is, of course, what has happened.  But the sad thing is that, having spoken to Amy Starkey, the manager of the racecourse, I feel that, while she has been portrayed as the villain of the piece, she has only done what I or anyone else would have done in the same circumstances.  Anyway, this blog is not designed to be a PR organ for Newmarket Town Council or its mayor, or for Newmarket Racecourses.  However, I am keen to get the message across that the impression which was given in the Weekly News is unfair to Amy and to the racecourse; and, as this is a general racing matter as well as a local one, I think that it's probably justifiable for me to put finger to keyboard and to write down the same outline which I have given to the several people who have already questioned me on the subject (Not, of course, that this is a Town Council or mayoral matter anyway.)  So here goes.

In the post-Hilsborough era, the nominated organiser of any sporting event is held legally responsible for public safety not only at the event, but also near the event if the danger stems from the event taking place (eg on the platforms of local British Rail or Underground station if 50,000 people pour out of a soccer stadium and all head for public transport).  In other words, if hundreds of people congregate on the Devil's Dyke while Kylie Minogue is singing (which is what would happen) and if one of them fell off the Dyke and got badly injured or killed (which very possibly would happen, as it's only a narrow path on the top, with a long and steep drop on either side) then Amy would be legally responsible, despite the accident being nothing to do with her and not having taken place on racecourse property.  The local H&S authorities have told her this, and have put the ball in her court to ensure that it does not happen.

My instinctive view is that if some people want to dance around on the Dyke and get hurt/killed, then that's their problem and not my concern: they would have no one to blame but themselves.  However, if I had just been told that I would probably end up in court if and when this happens, then I imagine that I would be doing exactly what Amy has done (in conjunction with the H&S authorities).  What I would also be doing - which she seemingly failed to do, although, apparently, not for the want of trying - is to make sure that the local press reported not only what I had done, but also why I had done it.

The good thing is that, while yesterday's Weekly News made minimal reference to why this has been done and made no reference to the H&S people, at least the front-page story in today's Journal includes this telling (if slightly vaguer than ideal) statement from the H&S man, Malcolm Taylor: "Concerns have been expressed for the safety of members of the public during concerts and we have been working with the racecourse to resolve the issue.  It is agreed that the most sensible course of action is for the footpath on the dyke to be diverted during this summer's concerts".

So there you have it.  This is not a typical chapter - but, as I have said, my aim for the next year is to help to break down barriers within this community.  And if this chapter can make even a tiny bit of progress towards preventing people from thinking, "There you go again - racing looking after its own with no interest in the general community", then this chapter will have been worthwhile.  Thank you for reading it - and if you hear anyone voicing disapproval of Amy's / the racecourse's action, please take the time to explain to them why it has been done, and that Amy, left to her own devices, would have been very happy for local people to spend a summer's evening on the Dyke taking advantage of the entertainment that which the racecourse is laying on.  And, of course, it is worth bearing in mind that, with Kylie's concert a sell-out, there is no financial benefit in preventing people from enjoying the show for free, because there are no tickets available to be sold to such people anyway.

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